Charlotte Rampling, who just received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Andrew Haigh’s astonishing drama 45 Years, exudes something of the same complex appeal in person that she does on the screen. She’s at once reserved and transparent, guileless and guarded; she gives the impression of being willing to talk openly about any subject, but she’s not going to be the one to bring the subject up. I sat down with her to talk about her early reputation as an icy seductress, how her choice of roles has changed as she’s grown older, and her approach to acting as a form of make-believe. —Dana Stevens
What attracted you about Andrew Haigh’s script for 45 Years? Did you know his work at all before?
I hadn’t seen Weekend before. But with the script was the DVD.
Would you say it was the DVD that convinced you as much as the script?
Just having read the script, I thought, Oh, this needs a fine, this needs a fine director. Basically someone who really has a particular sensitivity to human beings, you know, knows how to bring it out. I immediately went to the film and saw that he did have that.
Were you part of the process of helping to cast Tom Courtenay?
He was our first choice. He was Andrew’s first choice, and I thought that it was a very good idea, because I knew that I could immediately have something special happening with Tom. Not having known him, yet, again, we don’t have to know people.
You’d never even met?
No, I don’t meet Tom Courtenay to know what he gives off.
Andrew Haigh has mentioned that some things came up that changed the script during shooting. Does that mean you improvised on set or talked about your ideas with Andrew?
In the screenplay, there were many more scenes. Little tiny scenes, but scenes explaining things or conversations. There were about, you know, 10, 15 of these scenes that all in the end went out. And the reasons they went out were because he discovered that my particular way of being on screen was enough. Because you’re following the woman’s point of view. And you didn’t need all these things. You didn’t need so many explications through scene-making.
You’ve spoken about your need to bond with the director and whatever actor you’re working with. What about when that doesn’t happen?
You make it happen. You make believe it happens. That’s what we do. I make believe all that. That’s what’s interesting about filmmaking and quite strange. It could be quite creepy, but it’s not, because it’s about telling stories. So if the story demands a woman who actually has lived with a man 45 years and really loves him, well, I’m gonna be that woman. I’m gonna be that person. I’m gonna really love him. And the director, I need his absolute approval and his look, and I want him to be as close to me as he possibly can. So I give him everything. And I trust him completely. Why not? I just give over my trust completely to who I’m working with. I’ve always done this. People are quite surprised by that. They say, “Yeah, but that means you’re just a sort of puppet!” But I’m not. On the contrary, I’m just a vessel. I just want to be as flexible as air, as light.
What do you do when you come up against someone who is closed to that way of working? Or do you just not work with people like that?
Well, you don’t really know, completely, whether they’re going to be like that. So this is how I take control: by not having any control. I give over. But that’s my form of control. Which actually is incredible, because it elevates others. It elevates them into a situation of feeling very free with me. Because I’m not going to come and say, “Oh, I don’t think my character should do this, and I don’t think I want to do that. Oh, I don’t think I should wear this. Oh, no, I don’t think that’s right.” What do I know? And I don’t care. I know it’s all coming from here.
So it’s an apparent position of passivity, but it feels strong and active.
It’s active passivity.
Do you think there could be a 50th anniversary for this couple? Or do you imagine Kate drifting apart from Geoff after the film?
I really don’t know. I’m thinking about it a lot, obviously, because that question comes up a lot. But I don’t know. I sort of don’t think so.
Do you have anything on your plate next?
I do, yeah, but not … I want to go walking again, you know. (Pause.) When you do something like this, which is such pure, concentrated inspiration for me, to put myself into somebody like Kate and the journey that Kate’s going on: Well, the next project, you think, Mmm, I’ll take some time.
Is it psychically costly to do roles that are this demanding? Do you need to become a hermit afterwards?
No, not in that way. No. It’s in fact the contrary. It’s incredibly enriching. It’s like you’ve been waiting for this or you’ve been working in a way toward this. And then you’re able to do it. And then it actually finds its place in the world. Because they don’t always, you know, these films that you think maybe, you know, a few people see them, but here it’s much more than that. It really is finding its place in the world.
You have a reputation for being a glacial, fierce, forbidding person. How did you get that reputation? Is it just about the roles you’ve taken?
I think it’s in me. I think it’s in me, that reserve. My father had it. He was a beautiful, wonderful man, but he was terribly fierce. And it was quite scary.
He was a military man?
He was a military man, but it wasn’t the military that made him scary. It was because of what was going on inside him. He was a very tormented man. I didn’t know it, you know; when you’re a child, you don’t know it. And he had that vibration, and I have that same vibration. And I have to be careful of it, because otherwise I know I can just turn it on, and it can be, you know, it can be very harsh.
But it does make you well-suited to roles as someone remote and inaccessible. Which you’re not at all. In fact, your recent roles are more vulnerable.
Yeah. They’re more accessible, aren’t they? Yeah. So I’ve been able to actually be more accessible. Because it is a question of … it’s a gift of yourself that you give, when you are acting. You give over, you give yourself. You give yourself to a role. So it’s actually a gift. And I wasn’t really able to do that in the same way when I was a younger woman.
Even though you were trying to do it?
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But in film, I couldn’t do it. It felt like there was a kind of restriction there that … and as I had this power, also, as you just said, it works very well on screen when you’re younger. It’s very attractive, too. But I knew that as I was going along, I was obviously gonna develop other things as a human being and therefore give them to my work.
So there wasn’t a moment when you got disgusted with your forbidding performances or it started to feel like a shtick?
No, no, no, no. No, no, no. No, not at all. Not at all.
You knew that it was part of you.
Yeah. I knew that it was part of me, and I also knew I was—I quite liked it, actually. I quite liked it as a cinema persona. And that people actually said that about me, maybe I was glacial. That didn’t worry me, actually, at all. I thought it was quite interesting. Because I knew it was a persona. I knew it was something that I had that I would play with or, you know, for a specific use, which was the cinema.
Have you ever worked with an actor who changed the way you worked, or taught you something, which you carried on to the next film?
Yeah. Certainly Dirk Bogarde, right at the beginning. And Luchino Visconti as director, too. I had two incredible—they were sort of real masters then, because they were a lot older than I was. Dirk really took me under his arm, because it was through Dirk that I did The Night Porter, because he said he wouldn’t do it if I was not in it. And I was a complete unknown at the time. Certainly … actually, yeah, actually quite a lot. Paul Newman. Robert Mitchum. If I think about it … I watch people all the time. They don’t know, but I’m actually watching all the time.